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Here and Now

That edifice complex

October 23, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

This week, we officially pay attention to a building, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry.

I am all for paying attention to buildings. In fact, if I were mayor (I'm not saying I will be, I'm just saying my opponent's arrogance is somewhat astounding), I would pick out a Tuesday and declare it Pay Attention to a Building Day. It would probably be scheduled sometime between Columbus Day and St. Patrick's Day. Definitely after George Washington's birthday but before Easter, and probably not Oscar week.

Oh, forget it, it's too much trouble. Pay Attention to a Building Day is off. I'm sorry, it's just not feasible at this time. You're just going to have to pay attention to a building on your own. It shouldn't be too much to ask. In fact, it's simple. You know how you ignore buildings every day of your miserable life? OK, just flip that, and suddenly you'll be paying attention to a building.

We citizens of Los Angeles need to be paying attention to our buildings. I don't know how many times I've had visitors in Los Angeles ask me, "Wow, look at that building, what is it?" or "Wow, look at that building, that's beautiful," or "Wow, look at that building, how old is it?" or "Can you slow down? I'm getting carsick."

Usually I just say, "That's the County Museum of Art" and hope they don't realize I've identified like nine buildings as being the County Museum of Art. Then I take them to lunch. Visitors are such a pain!

Recently, I held my own Pay Attention to a Building Day. For years, I've been driving past Johnie's Coffee Shop on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax. Johnie's is closed and out of business. Except that there's a sign on the window saying: "Available for Filming, Call (323) 881-9913."

Now, I've eaten at some expensive breakfast places, but Johnie's, I figure, has to be the most expensive place around. Think about it: In order to have breakfast there, you have to write a script, cast the script, hire a crew, have an affair with someone in wardrobe and threaten to quit when the studio insists you shoot at a coffee shop outside Toronto. All for some scrambled eggs and bacon? Who has that kind of time on the weekend?

Still, I was paying attention to a building, so I called the number. Eventually, I got through to Eric Schiffer, who turned out to be president of the 99 Cents Only Stores and the son-in-law of David Gold, the 99 Cents Only Store founder.

Gold and his family, it turns out, bought the property in 1994, because their 99 Cents Only Store two doors up on Wilshire Boulevard was doing great business and they needed space for overflow parking. By then, Johnie's had closed and was being leased for movies and commercials.

"The reason we wanted it is because it had no customers," he said.

Fans of the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski" know that Johnie's was the setting for the scene in which Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) tells The Dude (Jeff Bridges) that he can get him a toe by 3 p.m.

The actual coffee shop was built in 1956, owned by a Montgomery family of Los Angeles, and it's considered an example of L.A. Googie architecture. I Googled Googie and learned, from a Web site called spaceagecity.com, that Googie architecture emerged in the 1950s and '60s, a post-World War II, car-culture design scheme featuring buildings whose "bold angles, colorful signs, plate glass, sweeping cantilevered roofs and pop-culture imagery captured the attention of drivers on adjacent streets."

Other local examples of Googie buildings include Pann's coffee shop in Inglewood and King Taco (formerly Norm's) in Long Beach.

And Johnie's, formerly Romeo's Times Square.

But you'll have to make up a story to get in. Plot point one: I'm hungry.

Paul Brownfield can be contacted paul.brownfield@latimes.com.

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